Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF and numerous other environmentalist organizations have been long pressing for a committed global effort to tackle climate change. It is clear that the major issue here is energy production – we desperately need low-carbon energy to keep the Earth’s climatic system in balance. However, these environmentalists also fight nuclear power, one of the two established low-carbon technologies in energy production (the other being hydropower) that are the only ones so gar that provide baseload electricity. At the same time, Greenpeace & Co. have long dismissed the idea (or, rather, ideology) called Cornucopianism which states that human ingenuity and free markets will provide solutions to every challenge humanity shall ever encounter – so we don’t have to worry about climate change, acid rain, the ozone hole, overpopulation, dwindling resources etc. – there will always be a backstop technology to save us.
But isn’t it a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Greenpeace (I will stick to this organization as being representative for numerous others bot because of its status and because I know it, so to speak, from the inside) has pervasively made the claim that the climate change problem is soluble even if we phase out both fossil fuels and nuclear power (accounting for some 80% of world electricity generation). The alternatives, so Greenpeace’s argument, are renewable energies and energy efficiency. This sounds great and I would be glad if it would work in reality, but, even if we ignore the land-use problems generated by most renewables for a moment, so far renewable energies are not able to provide energy without some baseload support (either fossil or nuclear) on a larger scale. Volatility is an inherent characteristic of most renewables (the only meaningful exception being hydropower) and to date we are not able to overcome this problem. Greenpeace’s answer to this point? Energy storage on a large scale, smart/intelligent energy systems (including so-called smart grids), solar-thermal power plants in the deserts will soon be available and the problem will be solved. Wait. Hold on. It will be solved? They will be available? Where does this certainty come from? Has Greenpeace access to a powerful oracle? No. All this is in fact an article of faith. Greenpeace believes that technological progress, induced by concerted efforts of individuals, businesses and governments, will bring about the solutions needed for a world both fossil-fuel- and nuclear-free. Although they likely would not admit it, they share this attitude with Cornucopians. The only difference is that Cornucopians believe that we don’t have to do anything, not purposely at least, while environmentalists believe that we can do something (i.e., phase out both fossil fuels and nuclear power) without having an alternative in hand.
This leads us to a dilemma I already discussed recently – is nuke the lesser evil? I am not at all a proponent of nuclear power, I don’t believe the fairy tales about its safety. But the fact is that, so far, we cannot bet on being able to solve the climate change problem with renewables only. The renewables technology is not sufficiently ripe, yet. Meanwhile, the time to stabilise to climatic system is running out – we cannot wait for them to become ripe. We have to act now, on the basis of what we have to date. The a priori exclusion of a low-carbon technology due to the faith that we can make it without this technology may be just as naive as the Cornucopians’ faith in human ingenuity and free markets as drivers of innovation.